This story originally appears in the April 4, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Some 30 minutes after the most significant star turn in a career increasingly full of them, senior forward Brice Johnson sat at the press conference dais with a snippet of net fastened to a backwards Final Four snapback and something on his mind. When he was asked about the Tar Heels withstanding a second-half Notre Dame run, Johnson did not bring up any of the 25 points or 12 rebounds that had helped him earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the East region. He instead recalled the technical foul—for flipping the ball high into the air after being whistled for a foul with 13:16 left in the game and UNC clinging to a three-point lead—that earned him a five-minute stint on the bench. “Well, first of all, I would like to apologize,” Johnson said. “It’s really dumb on my part to put my team in a situation like that.”
The game was in keeping with a four-year theme: the 6'10" Johnson’s ever-present mix of tantalizing potential and frustrating transgressions. Thunderous dunks celebrated by screams that allow his man to beat him down the floor for a basket. Film sessions during which coaches ignore his many highlights and harp on a single lowlight. On Dec. 19 against UCLA, Johnson was benched early for foul language, then set a career high with 27 points. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams grew so accustomed to reprimanding him that after Johnson’s spectacular 39-point, 23-rebound performance against Florida State on Jan. 4, Williams reminded reporters that Johnson had been just 1 for 8 from the field five days earlier. “Brice is still Brice,” Williams said then.
When Johnson arrived in Chapel Hill from Orangeburg, S.C., four years ago, Williams began critiquing Johnson so incessantly in practice about everything from his motor (inconsistent) to his footwork (careless) that players joked that Brice was one of Williams’s favorite words. Williams would invoke the power forwards on his two title-winning teams—Sean May (for his scrupulousness) and Tyler Hansbrough (for his effort)—as the standards against which Johnson was consistently falling short.
This season, his second as a starter, Johnson has earned Williams’s praise as the most improved player he has ever coached. The forward began having regular conversations with May, who joined Williams’s staff last summer, about the nuances of post play. Johnson surprised teammates with his help-side defense in practice. He still screamed after dunks but also got back on D. By the time he exploded against the Seminoles, he wanted to dominate.
Johnson has hardly stopped since. He has 14 double doubles in his last 20 games, including three of UNC’s four NCAA tournament wins. When he returned to the court after his benching against Notre Dame, Johnson scored on a short jumper and grabbed three boards in the final 90 seconds to help seal the 88–74 win. Later, as he was asked at his locker if he anticipated a punishment from Williams at practice, Johnson’s guilt seemed to have eased. “Whatever it is, I’ll take it,” he said. “I’m going to the Final Four.”